Does Popularity Matter?
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is “write the story that is in you” with the companion advice of “trends don’t matter.” So is that actually correct? If you write in something that is part of an extremely hot trend, will that increase your likelihood of selling? Maybe yes, but mostly no. Let’s look at the forces in play that can influence whether writing something trendy can be a mistake.
Book Publishing Takes a Long Time
This is one to commit to memory. Books aren’t published quickly most of the time. A book the publisher is extremely hot to have because it fits a present need might hit at exactly the right moment, but that’s more serendipity than planning. If a publisher needs something right now (for instance, the books on COVID-19 that have been published), they don’t look for those in a slush pile. They (or the book packager they hire) commission them so they can have them quickly. And they’ll normally hire writers with great track records for accuracy, research, and speed. None of that has any effect on books we might choose to write. In fact, writing about COVID right now would likely be a mistake as publishers (hopefully) won’t find them current after the two years it often takes to get through the process.
And two years can be a little optimistic. Picture books can take much longer with the demands of finding the right illustrator to match the project and the lengthy process of creating the illustrations. For less heavily illustrated books, other things can push back publication dates. Right now, for instance, many authors have seen planned publication dates pushed back a year or more. Other issues can crop up if a book seems insensitive when held against events in the moment or if the publisher has had to invest in unexpected books to fill an immediate need.
So publishing isn’t quick. A few years ago, this meant that books written because romantic vampires or magical schools were popular were often turned down because publishers predicted those trends weren’t going to continue for several years into the future. So if you’re writing for today’s hot trend, keep in mind that you’re gambling that publishers will believe that trend has longevity.
Popularity Can Lead to Glut
Another companion issue with writing to a trend is that publishers not only must predict whether a trend has longevity but also the publishers must predict market exhaustion. It’s absolutely true that paranormal romance was massively popular for a long time and continues to sell (albeit at much, much lower rates). It’s also true that publishers are asking whether they already have enough books to meet the remaining reader interest. This reality actually leads to an interesting side effect, namely that self-publishing (at least in YA and adult books) often sell best in genres that have that had huge popularity and now have a strong, but lessened reader interest. There are usually still readers for the now waning genre. These readers are still willing to buy books. But they aren’t going to amount to the kinds of sales that warrant the financial investment put out by a major publisher.
This steady pool of reader interest has led to small publishers that hyper-specialize in some genres. And it’s also given a huge boost to some self-published books. Vampire romance is a hard sell to larger publishers, but far from dead in self-publishing. In fact, all the different sub-genres of romance (like all the subgenres of mystery) tend to do extremely well in self-publishing, especially after an author develops a following. These are evergreen genres that occasionally pop up to major prominence when someone comes up with a book that crosses genre or tweaks a genre with a new twist, but they aren’t usually the books big publishers seek out. But smaller publishers and popular self-published authors sometimes specialize in them and do very well.
So if you are interested in self-publishing, it might actually make sense to look at trends that are fading without being totally dead. Right now, one such trend is dystopian. Usually these kinds of trends have built in audiences that are no longer well serviced by books from the big publishers and are still hungry. They can work for an author who self-publishes and both (1) loves the genre and (2) wants to write something that has a better chance of selling enough copies to be worth the effort you put into it.
Hot Trends Birth Derivative Works
A last issue with trend chasing is that it’s so easy to end up with a book that is completely dependent upon the existence of the book that started the trend. This is called a derivative work. And if it’s derivative enough, it can cross the line into being a copyright violation. At the very least, derivative books tend to be panned in reviews and thus find fewer buyers in school and library markets (and that means a lot less money for writer and publisher). When Harry Potter was new and shiny, publishers reported a massive flood of books about fantasy schools of one sort or another, all with a main character who had two best buddies. Those would actually be the more mildly derivative. The more seriously derivative had “house elves” and special magic spells with fancy names and the kids divided into groups based on traits (yes, I’m Hufflepuff, myself). When trying to join in on excitement over a super-hot book, it’s difficult to write something that guesses at the “trend” without being derivative, because so many trends are launched by a single, super popular book.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Does this mean that writers should actually shun the hottest trend? Not if you have an innovative and original take on it. Your book might be the book that reignites interest. At the very least, most trends wax and wane. Right now dystopian is waning but that doesn’t mean it’ll never come around. About the only trend we’ve not see come back strong is probably the Western, but who knows? If the right writer comes along, even that could be the new hot thing. But if so, it’ll happen because the author came up with something totally new that still fit the genre well enough for booksellers to categorize (which is the one-two punch for a truly hot book, new but able to be categorized) and not because the author wrote something simply because it was trendy. It’s worthwhile to be aware of trends and of the market so you can talk about your book in context, but don’t let your own creativity be stifled by an urge to try to write something trendy. Therein lies only trouble.